3 things journalists can learn from nonprofits about community engagement

By Alexandria Coleman

Coleman Infographic 1

Graphic created by Alexandria Coleman about learning from nonprofits.

Innovation is often made possible when existing ideas or products are used in an entirely new way, a process known as exaptation.

Exaptation is a term coined by Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” that describes this process of combining existing ideas and disciplines to create something new. Bringing together individuals and groups from different industries can be incredibly valuable in this exaptation process, which is why it is important to consider what individuals in the nonprofit sector can contribute to journalistic engagement.

Nonprofits have always supported their operations by engaging donors, volunteers and other community members. Many newsrooms, on the other hand, have only recently recognized the importance of engagement in their organizations’ survival. An industry long subsidized by advertising now faces many of the same funding challenges that are inherent to the nonprofit sector.

It’s time for journalists to get creative with engaging their audiences, and who better to learn from than organizations who have always relied on engagement to survive? 

Keep your core supporters engaged

Word-of-mouth is one of the most important engagement tactics, according to Katie Stringham, development and communications coordinator of ICAN. Dedicated board members and longtime volunteers sharing their experiences with the organization can often go much further than any efforts that come directly from the organization itself.

“Your 30-second elevator speech can lose a little bit of the emotional connection,” Stringham said. “When you can bring someone in the door to do a tour, or you can have a board member really talking about something that you’re doing, you know, that’s when you are really going to engage someone.”

Stringham and the rest of the ICAN team recognize the importance of keeping this core group engaged, which is why they work constantly to show their gratitude. Personal phone calls, lunch invitations and monthly newsletters are just some of the ways that they keep in constant contact with their supporters.

The ICAN team also works to keep their mission top of mind with “mission moments,”—short anecdotes about mission-related activities—in newsletters and at the start of every board meeting to keep supporters involved in the work the organization is doing.

Create partnerships that align with your mission

Creating partnerships with local businesses is one way that nonprofit organizations connect with members of the community. These partnerships can be valuable to both organizations and the community as a whole; however, it is important to consider what each organization is trying to achieve.

For example, the San Diego Humane Society often partners with local dog-friendly restaurants to develop creative ways to support the restaurant and the community, without losing sight of the organization’s mission.

One example of this is to place dog-training tips at every table, Elkie Wills, director of community engagement at the San Diego Humane Society, said. This tactic not only helps the restaurant and its customers, but it also furthers the San Diego Humane Society’s mission of educating people on responsible and compassionate pet ownership.

Forming these kinds of partnerships can be difficult in the news industry because of the potential threat to objectivity; however, the right partnerships—those that align with the newsroom’s mission and values—can play a significant role in connecting a news organization to the communities it covers. 

If you have to say no, give options

For Wills, fulfilling all of the requests sent to her department is a challenge. The organization is fortunate to have widespread community interest in its mission. However, this interest translates into so many requests that sometimes there isn’t enough time or resources to complete all of them.

To address this issue, Wills and her team have established a mantra that guides the work that they do.

“We say no, but we say no with options,” Wills said. “I might say, ‘my team is booked; however, I can provide brochures.’ Or if it is a kid-focused event, ‘I can provide you with coloring books.’”

If someone wants to have adoptable animals at an event, but San Diego Humane Society’s mobile adoption vehicle is already booked, she will also recommend partner organizations that might be able to bring animals to the event.

“We really want to be of assistance and be supportive, even if we can’t do exactly what they are asking for,” Wills said.

While everyone wanting cute, adoptable animals at an event is a problem that is specific to organizations like the San Diego Humane Society, the issue of limited resources is not. Providing alternatives, rather than simply denying requests, is a great way to ensure members of the community have a good impression of an organization.


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